Artist Hans Op de Beeck
Leila Antakly | Ninu Nina, 22 October 2021
The multi-disciplinary artist (b.1969) lives and works in Brussels, and produces large-scale immersive installations, sculptures, art films, large watercolour paintings and stunning photographs.
Since 2015, I also became professionally active in the performing arts: I wrote and directed three theatre plays for which I created the scenography and costumes as well, and since 2018 I also started to direct opera, combining that task with creating the scenography and costumes.
My work is a reflection on our complex society and the universal questions of meaning and mortality that resonate within it. I regard man as a being who stages the world around him in a tragi-comic way. Above all, I am keen to stimulate the viewers’ senses and invite them to fully experience the parallel worlds I evoke; I seek to produce works that deliver a moment of wonder and silence and soothing consolation, and that resonate life as we know it.
Over the past twenty years, I realised many immersive installations, in which I evoke what I describe as ‘visual fictions’: tactile deserted spaces as an empty set for the viewer to walk through or sit down in, sculpted havens for introspection. In many of my films though and my autonomous sculptures, in contrast with those depopulated installations, I am happy to prominently depict the most diverse characters.
Two weeks ago, I was most honoured my film ‘Staging Silence (3)’ (2019) was shown at Tate Modern in London, and I was truly happy that over the past months my sculpture ‘The Horseman’ (2020) was exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Right now, I am preparing my stage directing, scenography and costumes for a new opera production composed by Wim Henderickx for the opera houses of Antwerp, Ghent (Belgium) and Rouen (France); I am creating my scenography and costumes for my second production with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; and I started to design my 1900 m2 immersive installation for the Biennale of Lyon (2020, France), and my 2000 m2 solo show for the Amos Rex Museum in Helsinki (2020, Finland), amongst others."
Tell us about your greatest inspirations or influences?
Simply, everyday life with its obstacles, awkwardness, punctuated with moments of beauty and emotion, is my greatest source of inspiration. I love to depart from small and seemingly unimportant things as a starting point for universal questions about our human condition, about our tragicomic existence.
As a spectator and art lover I truly appreciate film makers like the Coen brothers, writers like Raymond Carver, painters like Peter Doig, actors like Frances McDormand, composers like Wim Henderickx… But I wouldn’t call these people influences or inspirations for my own work, but rather, artists that reveal the power of the arts to me, and by doing so, encourage me and strengthen me to keep believing in the incredible importance of creation.
Tell us a bit about your creative process?
In general, when I create large-scale, immersive installations, even when in some cases they appear rather dark and gloomy, my first aim always is to create a calm, silent, consoling atmosphere. I try to make the visitor as receptive as possible to fully experience the work. When the spectator accepts my invitation to take time, to walk through or sit down in my space, and breathe that atmosphere of tranquillity, I can then offer him a collection of references and layers that speak about much more; things he can gradually discover or unveil.
By free association, in a stylistically playful, inconsequent, and anachronistic way, I mingle sculptural interpretations of the human figure, furniture, architectural shapes and props into a new whole. Doing so, I am not afraid to mix so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, to combine gems with banalities. I for example sculpt a beer bottle and an emptied pizza box and combine those with precious mystical objects that refer to ancient cultures or, for example, the early development of science.
But I will never fully explain all the references the spectator could find in my large-scale installations, because that might harm the newly found chemistry and inner logic of the whole, or it could be understood as a form of legitimation of the artwork. The main idea is that my visual fictions speak about life, actuality, and history by themselves, without textual guidance, in both a seemingly simple as well as a complex, multi-layered way.
The planning of developing such installations is quite diverse; sometimes I start with constructing a chair and some weeks later it turned into a life-sized motorway diner. In other cases, I do need to start with quite precise technical drawings to safely build a work with, let’s say, the size of a real house.
The core of the work is always done at my own studio with my team of assistants. We only outsource when it is needed, when we don’t have the space or time to do certain technical jobs ourselves.
I never stopped using colours, but a large, and probably the better-known part of my sculptural works, watercolours and photography are achromic: in grey tones, black and white. However, most of my video works, and quite a few installations and sculptures are in full-colour, or a combination of a few colours.
The works that don’t contain colours, are the ones where I love to fully focus on the play of light and shadow, and how that gives life to a three-dimensional shape in a more direct way. To use colour in those cases would be distracting from that essence.
For some of my immersive installations, and for the sculptures of the human figure, I realised that I love to use my own specific grey, making them appear as if they were frozen in time, or petrified as it were. The grey I developed has a tender, velvet like appearance and silences down the sculptures, creating a mood of tranquillity; a feeling I hope I manage to stage and convey to the viewer.
If I were to make my sculptures of people in full colour, for example, those works would then be too focused on simulating reality, and that, with all due respect for the artists that do wonderful things in that direction, is not a goal of mine whatsoever. I prefer to abstract reality and thus create an evocation of a mood, an atmosphere, an internalised feeling. I love to evoke, not to simulate. Therefore, I also always prefer to fully and instantly show that my works are nothing but a construction, an interpretation, and not painstakingly copying the full-colour world that surrounds us.
My art works are a ‘proposal’ to the viewer in the same way that fictitious characters and storylines in a novel are propositions to the reader. As an artistic author, I offer a kind of parallel world to the spectator, the reader, the listener, who, always, knows that what is presented is a construction of a creative mind, and not the world as it is.
To me, as a maker, it is about -by no means- hiding it is a construction, and at the same time inviting the receiver to find an authentic, true, and profound experience in it. Something as ‘false’ as a representation can evoke a real emotion; that is the amazing power of art. Through identification with a protagonist or subject, and through our senses, we can mentally enter a fictitious world that then becomes real and can move us, involve us, touch us.
What I try to offer in my visual art is the beginning of possible stories. Sometimes I directly depart from my own life experiences, at times I totally make things up. I do refer to quite some existing cultural phenomena, but I will always interpret what surrounds us and deliver it as fiction. Not fiction as employed in the ‘fantasy’ genre, but a form of ‘plausible’ fiction that one can visually read and understand as something close to life as we know it. In that way, it speaks about us, our human condition, the difficulties, and blessings we meet in life.
Throughout my multi-disciplinary art practice, one can find references to eras as old as the renaissance for example, baroque, classicism, neo-classicism, modernism as well as post-modernism. But whether I write a theatre play or create a sculptural space, the staged or evoked environments are always fully fictitious, in the sense that they don’t quote nor depart from a specific architect’s or designer’s oeuvre. My life-sized interpretation of a motorway diner that overlooks a (sculpted) desolate motorway at night for example (‘Location (5)’ (2004-2008), a permanent installation at the Towada Art Centre, Towada, Japan), has, when it comes to its interior design, the look of a late ‘70ies place. On the other hand, my installation ‘The Collector’s House’, architecturally, looks like the neo-classical nonsense a well to do person with a doubtful taste might have come up with in, say, the ‘50ies. Yet, when you look more closely to their details, you will always discover details that refer to today and other periods as well.
When I start to paint at eight in the evening or so, when my assistants are gone and the studio building is empty, I find the silence and concentration to paint. Most of my watercolours are almost three meters wide, and you have to work on them layer by layer, with moments in between where the paper must dry. Ideally, I work on a watercolour for about twelve hours on end. So around eight in the morning, the essence of the watercolour is already there. For most paintings I then still need one or two extra nights to get them finished to the detail.
The advantage is that I can work without any form of interruption at night. No phone calls, no visitors, no guiding of my assistants when they need me to help with the sculptures to make the next decisions. In one flow I can paint in the highest form of concentration. The disadvantage is of course that it is exhausting when your paint several nights in a row and still have other things to do during the daytime, which, at my studio, is always the case. In the periods when I paint over night, I am often exhausted. But for some reason, the night helps to set the right tone of each watercolour. Probably it is romantic nonsense, but to me the night seems to be the ultimate moment to create these works, that, content wise, all have a nocturnal mood.
Aside of the watercolour paintings, I write as well, mainly theatre plays and short stories. This as well is a lonely activity that often takes place at night. One could say that these personal, lonely forms of creation are quite different than the big works I realise with my team. You could say that the one-to-one relation with the empty sheet of paper, whether that’s for writing or painting, feels a bit like ‘back to the basics’ for me. But value or hierarchy wise, there is no difference in the intensity or artistic weight in the works I do by myself or the ones where I can involve extra pairs of hands to make them happen.
How has the pandemic affected your creativity and how do you see the world changing?
Over the past two years, I still was productive as usual, but mentally it wasn’t easy, to be honest. Just before the pandemic broke out, there was such a strong sense of optimism and rampant energy in my life; I had just happily booked a trip for my four children and myself to go to New York in the Spring of 2020, my studio was in full swing...
But suddenly the tragic news of all those first victims worldwide arrived, and all the restrictions that came with it… Meanwhile, amongst other difficulties within my close family, my eldest sister was battling cancer in the hospital and was declared incurable, and because of the pandemic, only one fixed visitor -my youngest sister- could go and see her, and no-one else was allowed. So even my already isolated elderly mother, was unable to visit her own terminally ill daughter at the hospital; that was such a sad situation. Fortunately, towards the very end, that was possible again, when my sister spent her last days at the palliative care. To lose someone that close in your life by itself is so hard, but in the setting of the pandemic truly even more challenging.
Some colleagues told me the isolation caused by the pandemic was a gift for their art, because of all the cancelled exhibitions and travelling, and the sudden emergence of available time for self-reflection and the exploration of new paths in their practice. But in my case, it felt more like a numbing situation; my oxygen comes from the constant and parallel flowing of things, and not from a sudden standstill.
Like just about everywhere, also in Belgium social life was paralyzed by lockdowns, the closing of bars, restaurants, theatres, the heavily restricted social contacts... Whereas as an artist you choose isolation when it is welcome or necessary for your creations, having an obliged additional one on top of that, to me, simply felt like too much.
Most of my major museum projects, and events such as biennials initially planned for 2021, had been postponed to 2022, leaving my calendar for next year overloaded. On the other hand, the pandemic also had financial consequences for my studio because many art fairs were cancelled or only took place online.
Who would you consider to be an icon of our time?
That is a tricky question. In these most complicated times, and, to the bad, on the political level for example, there unfortunately are so many ‘negative’ icons of whom I’d say they totally represent (the severe problems of) our time. I mean, extreme right populist politicians, big celebrities without the slightest merits...
To the good, of course, and fortunately, there are also incredibly inspiring people such as Greta Thunberg, whom we should consider an icon.
What does wellbeing mean to you?
Wellbeing to me is an inner sense of simplicity, acceptance, clarity, feeling at home with oneself, and, most of all, the absence of conflict. Wellbeing means that one is content with one’s life as it is: understanding that life doesn’t need to be spectacular nor rich of events, but that what is, is fine, exactly as it is.